(Photo by UNEP/Adriane Ohanesian)


UNEP: Africa’s private sector supports fight against plastic pollution

Nairobi, Kenya

Africa’s private sector is increasingly seeing business opportunities in the recycling sector, which was once mainly in the purview of local governments. Businesses are driving innovation and market development through technology and infrastructure upgrades, supporting the public sector in managing plastic waste.

People call me “the queen of waste,” said Suzan Kubheka Banda, a 44-year-old mother of three from Johannesburg, South Africa.

Banda started recycling plastic waste in 2008, collecting from nearby taverns and shops. By 2010, she opened her own buyback center where informal waste pickers sell their daily finds. She now employs 11 people. She receives about 3000 kilos of plastics for recycling and depending on the month, it can go as high as 6000 kilos.

In 2020, she started using the BanQu App, a blockchain-based traceability app that gives its users real-time data and reporting.

“The app records the material waste pickers have recycled, the weight and the price,” said Banda. She especially appreciates the weekly and monthly reports that the app prepares so she can see how much business the center has done and how they can improve their numbers.

The app demonstrates how a business can leverage digital tools to connect informal waste pickers and buyback centers to major recycling companies such as PETCO and international producers like Pepsico, WilMar and Solvay. The larger firms, meanwhile, have BanQu’s information at their fingertips to ensure transparency and traceability of the materials in their supply chains.

BanQu’s business model will be showcased at the 2023 Africa CEO Forum, where their CEO and Co-founder Ashish Gadnis will join United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Inger Andersen in a discussion on how Africa’s private sector can contribute to the fight against plastic pollution.

Although developing countries in Africa are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of plastic pollution due to its nascent recycling sector, the problem is global. More than 400 million tonnes of plastic is produced every year worldwide, a third of which is designed to be used only once. Less than 10 per cent is recycled. An estimated 19-23 million tonnes end up in oceans, rivers and lakes annually.

The private sector players in the recycling sector in Africa include RecyclePoints in Nigeria, PETCO in South Africa, EcoPost in Kenya and BanQu, which has operations across the continent. 

In 2014, BanQu introduced blockchain-based technology that creates a ledger of transactions that allows informal waste pickers to build verifiable records of their collections and earnings while helping them build credit.

“We spend a lot of time with informal waste pickers on the streets of Nairobi and Johannesburg and other cities around the world and connecting them to the larger recycling infrastructure and systems,” said Ashish Gadnis, Co-Founder and CEO of BanQu. A level of coordination and partnership that Gadnis said has allowed BanQu and its partners to collect around 30 million kilos of PET or Polyethylene Terephthalate a year.

According to Gandis, BanQu brings a level of transparency and traceability to the industry, benefiting not just the informal waste pickers and buyback centers but also the major brands who are the only ones who pay to use the app.

Companies also use the app to track their compliance with the Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR), a scheme that requires producers to finance the collection, recycling and responsible end-of-life disposal of plastic products.

Estimates show that the informal sector is responsible for 58 per cent of all the plastic waste collected and recovered globally, largely linked to urban areas and contributes significantly to the reduction of waste in landfills and dumpsites.

But despite the immense contributions of informal waste pickers, they often face unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, low or irregular incomes and a lack of access to information, markets, finance, training and technology.

BanQu hopes to change this by giving informal waste pickers a digital identity and financial history that helps them overcome the barriers faced by the unbanked and financially excluded populations.

Studies show that with better systems and infrastructure, diverting waste away from dumpsites and landfills towards reuse, recycling and recovery could inject an additional US$8 billion every year into the African economy and create significant socio-economic opportunities for the continent.

"I make all of my money from recycling,” said Rebecca Skhosana, a 36-year-old informal waste picker in Johannesburg who sells recyclable materials to the buyback center owned by Suzan Kubheka Banda.

However useful and needed these recycling companies in Africa are, UNEP’s research has found that recycling alone is not a viable long-term solution.

“We cannot recycle our way out of the plastic pollution mess we are in,” said Rose Mwebaza, Director of UNEP’s Africa Office.

“In addition to phasing out the production of new plastics, the public and private sector must work together to shift to a circular economy that leaves no country and no one behind,” she added.

A new UNEP report, Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy, calls for a transition to new models that prioritize eliminating unnecessary plastics, redesigning products to minimize single-use plastic, reusing, recycling and reorienting and diversify plastic by replacing plastic products with alternative materials. A shift to a circular economy could lead to US$4.5 trillion in direct and indirect savings by 2040.

At the UN Climate Conference in 2017, the governments of South Africa, Nigeria and Rwanda launched the African Circular Economy Alliance hosted by the African Development Bank (AfDB) to spur Africa’s transition to a circular economy and support the economy, jobs, and the environment. Current membership also includes Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire and is expanding to other countries.

UNEP and AfDB have long collaborated since signing an MoU in 1989, and are now working on the Africa Natural Capital Atlas, a tool to support policy and decision-making to enhance ecosystem restoration and stewardship of the region’s natural resources. 

In 2018, UNEP and the Ellen Macarthur Foundation launched the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment that unites businesses, governments, and other organizations from around the world behind a common vision of a circular economy for plastic. The commitment has over 500 signatories, including governments, businesses and financial institutions, who are determined to reduce the size of the problem and then reuse, recycle and find alternatives to plastics.

UNEP is also the host of World Environment Day on 5 June, which this year is focusing on solutions to the plastic pollution crisis under the theme #BeatPlasticPollution as well as the host of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) whose mandate is to negotiate an international legally binding treaty on plastic pollution.

The INC’s ongoing negotiations follow the historic adoption of the resolution to end plastic pollution at the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly in March 2022, in which all 193 UN Member States decided to end plastic pollution.

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